The need to preserve the resilience of Western Ghats

The need to preserve the resilience of Western Ghats

Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Anil Dave has announced that a fresh round of consultations will be held with all the stakeholders before deciding on the ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) in the Western Ghats. This is a clear indication that the ESA notification, issued by the ministry in 2014 after due pressure from civil society organisations, is not palatable to the politicians of the region.

After a long discussion with the Members of Parliament from the Western Ghats, the minister said, “within six months, we intend to prepare a complete plan on preserving the Western Ghats while taking care of the roads, power and drinking water needs of people living there. I will go to the remote areas and talk to the common man in the villages and forests before taking a decision.”

Obviously, the minister is not aware of the efforts of his own ministry in evolving a plan to protect the Western Ghats, also known as the Sahyadri mountain range. Or is he deliberately ignoring the existence of such monumental work on this fragile mountain range?

In the history of environment governance in India, for the first time, we have an in-depth report on how to preserve the Western Ghats. The voluminous report of the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Committee, headed by Prof Madhav Gadgil, was prepared upon the request of the environment ministry. It recommended that the local people, especially village-level gram panchayat institutions, should be allowed to take decisions in matters related to development.

Unfortunately, this report questioned the ongoing development policies that led to destruction. The Central government diluted the report with the Kasturirangan committee and eventually in 2014, the notification for ESA was issued after an inordinate delay.
Irrespective of which party ruled in the states, they opposed the idea of declaring ESA. Obviously, the ruling class is not keen to initiate any change in the ongoing destructive policies.

The Sahyadri is the lifeline of millions of people in south India as most rivers originate from these hill ranges and provide water security to agriculture and industry. The rainfall in south India is intricately linked to the forest cover in these mountains. In fact, the name Sahyadri literally means “the resilient mountains.”

The strong character of resilience of this region is due the existing biodiversity of both flora and fauna. Every year, new species of frogs or other species are identified in the region. Recognised as one of the 18 biodiversity host spots, this is the only area in south India that has tropical forests. Like the forests of Amazon and Africa, they play a major role in mitigating the impact of climate change, and are known as the ‘lungs of the world’.

Despite the pressure of human population, this region has a history of agricultural and horticultural practices that support the coexistence of diversity and wildlife. However, in recent years, conflict over natural resources for developmental projects like dams, roads and infrastructure has put additional pressure on the fragile forest cover.

In order to halt the process of deforestation, the people in Sirsi region of Karnataka had launched ‘Appiko’ movement, inspired by the Chipko of Himalayas.

On the occasion of the silver jubilee celebrations of Appiko in 2008, Sunderlal Bahuguna, the Chipko leader, gave the call to celebrate September 8, the day Appiko was launched, as Sahyadri Day. He said ‘these mountains are the fountain head of water sources for south India and these catchments should be protected to provide water security for this region’.

Despite the failure of monsoon for the second consecutive year and witnessing the worst water crisis, the state government is not willing to learn from the severe impact of deforestation. The reports prepared by the Indian Institute of Science linking decreased tree cover in Western Ghats to reduced rainfall has no impact on the policies of the state government.

Projects like Yettinahole in Karnataka, construction of micro hydel dams, monoculture plantations and large infrastructure projects are bound to accelerate the process of further depletion of the remaining forests in Western Ghats.

Conserving green cover
It is in this context, the celebration of Sahyadri Day becomes very important. It is an occasion to create not only awareness among the common people but also motivate them to take action to conserve green cover in this region. Since the past eight years, a group of committed people are involved in taking the issue to the people, especially among the youth.

The effort is to link the green wealth of Sahyadri to the wellbeing of the entire state. Their slogan is ‘the greenery of Malenadu is the wealth of the plains’ (Malenadu, or Malnad, is the Western Ghat region in Karnataka). Sahyadri, in addition to being a biodiversity hot spot, has also given a cultural legacy to Karnataka.

Literary giants and Jnanpith awardees like Kuvempu, Shivaram Karanth and many others have been nurtured by these forests and rivers. The folklore and the diversity of cultures are intricately linked to the natural resources of this region.

The political leaders with their parochial outlook do not have the right to destroy this cultural legacy of the state. Their decisions have already caused irreversible damage to the mountain range, adversely impacting the people and the wildlife.

The events that unfolded over the years with Prof Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports, and the political games enacted by the Central and state governments, clearly indicate that they want to continue with the same policies that will further destroy the fragile natural resources of the Western Ghats. Now, the people have to put pressure and say that water and livelihood security of the people cannot be sacrificed at the cost of further destruction of Sahyadri.

We have only one Sahyadri in south India and we need to assert ourselves to save this fragile mountain range.

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